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Iranian Hikers Paying Price for US Spy Policies

Now would be a good time for our government to formally renounce the use of journalists as spies.


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On July 31, three former UC Berkeley students were arrested by Iranian authorities in the mountains near the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then, Shane Bauer, 27, of Emeryville; Joshua F. Fattal, 27, of Cottage Grove, Oregon; and Sarah E. Shourd, 31, of Oakland, have been held in Iran's Evin prison. Their families say the three may have accidentally crossed an unmarked border during a hiking trip. However, this month an Iranian prosecutor said he is charging them with being spies for the US government.

Like most in our country, I am appalled by Iran's current leadership. They are descendants of the fascists who murdered many Iranian students, including some I knew, who had jubilantly returned home from exile after the end of the regime of dictator Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Those students had hoped to build a new and progressive Iran and believed that things were turning for the good in their suffering country.

Consequently, I have much sympathy for the three hikers and share the anguish of their families and friends, who vehemently reject the notion that they are spies. However, much of the blame for their plight, and for the similar detention of US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee in North Korea, must go to those in our government who will not renounce the use of journalists as spies.

US government officials predictably claimed that the three are not spies and said they were seized solely as pawns in the geopolitical chess game between Iran, the United States, and other nations. The problem with this argument is that our government never admits anyone is a spy, and has indeed been known to use journalists as spies. So why should Iranians believe Hillary Clinton's crocodile tears on behalf of the three hikers?

Iran, you will remember, is where our CIA staged a coup in 1953, leading to the overthrow of a democratic government and the installation of Pahlavi, the aforementioned Shah of Iran. Even former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has admitted that "it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs." As to what the United States is doing today in Iran, many with knowledge assert that US operatives are trying to destabilize the government. New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh has asserted this, as has former Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter. And, earlier this year, former US National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft said that the US government has spies at work in Iran.

Iranian authorities are surely to blame with regard to these three hikers, but it cannot be denied that our country's foreign policy is the catalyst for their continued detention. CIA involvement in clandestine "regime change" abroad has seldom affected American travelers personally. But as the global stroke of the United States continues to shrink along with our empire, our government's behavior will create more and more problems for its citizens, especially in the wake of our post-9/11 activities. Everyday citizens are starting to pay.

Other countries feel more emboldened to stand up to the acts of the United States, as 23 Americans found this out earlier this month when an Italian court convicted them for their participation in a CIA-backed kidnapping in Milan. These Americans plucked Egyptian-born Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr off the streets of Milan and flew him to Egypt where, he claimed, he was subjected to brutal torture that included having live electronic prods applied to his genitals. What was the defense used by the Americans? It was that their activities were approved in Washington. The Italian prosecutor called on the court to reject this "Nuremburg defense," and the judge did.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has issued a statement on behalf of the three hikers, calling the allegations that they were spies "outrageous." While I do not know what reporting they were doing in the area, Bauer is an experienced journalist who has written for several local and national publications. Artful and progressive reporting by the other two can be found on several web sites.

The problem with all this is that is seems likely that our country does use journalists as spies and has spies pose as journalists. That makes it much harder for the families in this case to prove that these three were not, and causes problems for American journalists at a time we need more reporting from the places where US soldiers are being sent to fight and die.

This issue has been repeatedly raised in Washington, with little to show for it. In 1976, a Senate committee headed by Frank Church found that more than fifty American journalists had worked clandestinely as CIA agents during the Cold War. Their final report called on the CIA to declare that this would never happen again. During the Clinton administration, the Senate held hearings on the use of journalists as spies and an array of prominent journalists asked the CIA to confirm that it would never involve journalists in spying. The CIA refused to do so. In 1996, the head of the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a report that the CIA's stance "may have led some foreign leaders to believe that the CIA and leading US policy-makers are actively urging an end to official constraints on the use of journalist for espionage." In 2001 the Washington Post ran a story about a "high-level" defector from the Taliban who said that he had been visited two or three times by American intelligence agents posing as journalists. There can be little doubt that since 9/11, the CIA and other intelligence-gathering services of this country feel more freedom to engage in such activities.

Now would be a good time for the government to revisit this issue. In the meantime, we are holding our breath, hoping for a safe return of the three. In October, their mothers presented a petition signed by more than 2,500 people to the Iranian Mission in New York asking for the release of the hikers. A web site dedicated to their freedom can be found at


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